November 16, 2023 | Flash Brief

French Court Issues International Arrest Warrant for Syria’s Assad

November 16, 2023 | Flash Brief

French Court Issues International Arrest Warrant for Syria’s Assad

Latest Developments

French judges issued an international arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad on November 15, citing his use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. The court also issued warrants for the arrest of Assad’s brother, Maher, and two Syrian generals responsible for the chemical attacks. A special war crimes unit within the French judiciary is pursuing the case in response to a 2021 complaint filed by human rights advocates. According to CNN, this is the first-ever warrant for crimes against humanity issued against another country’s sitting head of state.

Last week, Assad visited Saudi Arabia to participate in an emergency summit of leaders from the Arab League and Organization of Islamic Cooperation to address the crisis in Gaza. Assad’s presence underscored his progress toward full diplomatic rehabilitation in the Arab world despite the mass atrocities his regime still perpetrates to this day. In Riyadh, the Syrian leader warned that strong words and humanitarian aid are not enough to protect civilians from a ruthless aggressor.

Expert Analysis

“As the courts rightly consider the atrocities of the past, Congress, the Biden administration, and the American people would be negligent if they did not address with a sense of urgency the torture of tens of thousands of political detainees, the massacre of Syrian civilians, the indiscriminate bombing of internally displaced people, and the shooting of reporters that continue to take place at the hands of the Assad regime, even during this very month. Without effective diplomatic pressure, these will continue with impunity. — Toby Dershowitz, Managing Director, FDD Action

“Assad may never see the inside of a courtroom for as long as he maintains his grasp on power. Yet the French warrant may strengthen Western determination to isolate Assad rather than following the shameful precedent set by the Arab League. Washington especially should pay attention since the Biden administration has quietly encouraged Arab governments to engage with Assad.” David Adesnik, FDD Senior Fellow and Director of Research

Assad Comes in From the Cold

In the early morning hours of August 21, 2013, a barrage of rockets filled with sarin, a deadly nerve agent, fell on the Damascus neighborhood of Ghouta, killing an estimated 1,400 residents. Assad continues to deny ever using chemical weapons and agreed in 2013 to surrender his entire arsenal and join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans their use. Yet Assad soon broke his promises, holding back part of his arsenal and repeatedly targeting civilians.

Despite Assad’s atrocities that cost hundreds of thousands of Arab lives, Arab governments welcomed Assad back to the fold, ending Syria’s suspension from the Arab League earlier this year. While insisting the United States itself would never normalize relations with Assad, the Biden administration quietly encouraged Arab re-engagement with Damascus.

The Limits of Accountability

In addition to the French warrant, Damascus is contending with an effort by Canada and the Netherlands to secure an order from the International Court of Justice directing the Assad regime to stop the systematic torture of political prisoners. Syria has also been suspended from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the body responsible for enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Yet the only regime officials to face personal consequences for their conduct have been mid-level officials convicted in European courts after leaving Syria of their own accord. Personal impunity for Assad and his inner circle is likely to endure for as long as he remains in power. The regime remains vulnerable to sanctions, although the Biden administration refuses to enforce the ones already on the books despite strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for holding Assad accountable.

Unrepentant, unreformed Syrian regime returns to Arab League,” FDD Flash Brief

Biden is quietly encouraging Assad’s rehabilitation. He should reverse course.,” by David Adesnik

Congress delivers bipartisan warning to Biden on Syria policy,” by David Adesnik


International Organizations Nonproliferation Syria